John List: House-Poor Killer

Mass Murderer, Overextended Homeowner
(“The List Murders,” Forensic Files)

Pictures of Breeze Knoll frighten me not only because John List murdered his family there in 1971 but also because, well, think of the electric bill.

Breeze Knoll, the scene of the crime

I’d hate to see the heating tab for the 19-room mansion that occupied 431 Hillside Avenue in Westfield, New Jersey. Factor in regular maintenance like painting plus the HVAC crises liable to befall a Victorian-era structure, and you’re asking for some none-too-stately financial drama.

According to a letter List left in the house along with the five bodies, he turned to homicide in part to prevent the embarrassment that losing the home would cause his family.

Way roomy. This week’s post will take a look at how List’s predicament compares to the kind of woe that affects homeowners in the new millennium — and particularly after the subprime mortgage crisis.

First, a recap of the Forensic Files episode “The List Murders” with some additional research from the internet. I’ll try to keep it brief since the story has already been the subject of numerous articles, books, TV dramatizations, and documentary series.

John and Helen List, both 46, lived with their three teenage children and John’s mother, Alma, in a cavernous home in the affluent Union County town.

The family attended the Redeemer Lutheran Church, where John taught Sunday school.

Too much drama. Although Helen reportedly suffered from the effects of syphilis contracted from her previous husband, the family appeared stable and high-functioning to their friends and neighbors.

The List family in a widely circulated photo

What no one knew was that John, an accountant, had trouble holding onto a job. At the time of the murder, John was unemployed. He left the house every morning, pretending to go to work when he was really whiling away time reading or sleeping in the train station.

There were more problems. John felt that his popular, socially active teenagers were neglecting their spiritual needs. It especially bothered him that his eldest, 16-year-old Patricia, was interested in becoming an actress. He thought it improper in the eyes of God.

He worried that she and the rest of the family wouldn’t get into heaven.

Undiscovered jackpot? His anxiety grew with his inability to keep up with mortgage payments and other bills. He was behind by $11,000 on the house and had been secretly dipping into his mother’s accounts.

The family had bought the house for around $50,000 in 1965. It meant living above their means, and List eventually had to take out a second mortgage.

By 1971, List seemed poised for a total financial collapse and didn’t want his wife and kids to bear the shame of going on public assistance.

A couple of sources claim that the ornate house contained a skylight made of Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass valuable enough to bail List out of his financial problems. But in a pre-Antiques Roadshow world, he didn’t think to get an appraisal and try to sell the glass — if it really existed, that is.

Redefining eerie. By killing his family, he hoped to spare them shame, save their souls, and guarantee they could all spend the afterlife together.

He chose not to commit suicide because he considered it a sin.

How do we know all this? List’s five-page letter, addressed to his pastor, explained everything, including the way he murdered his family.

He waited until his wife and children arrived home one by one, crept up and shot them in the head at close range, and dragged their bodies into the ballroom. His 84-year-old mother, Alma, who lived in an upstairs apartment in the house, received a gunshot, too.

List lowered the temperature in the house, cued up some organ music on the intercom system, and told his kids’ teachers that the family had gone on a trip to North Carolina.

After cashing in his mother’s savings bonds and pocketing the money, he skipped town. He took the name Robert Clark, eventually got an accounting job, and remarried.

Bust the case. Meanwhile, back at Breeze Knoll, investigators found the bodies after neighbors summoned police because they hadn’t see anyone enter or leave the house in a month.

The authorities couldn’t find List despite a nationally publicized manhunt led by the FBI; the fugitive had given himself too generous a head start. Oh, and there was no internet back then.

The case turned cold until 18 years later, when then-new TV show America’s Most Wanted commissioned forensic artist Frank Bender to sculpt a bust that “aged” List. Host John Walsh, whose own son had been a murder victim, asked viewers to call in tips.

The effort was 100 percent successful.

Colorado resident Wanda Flanery contacted police about a former neighbor named Bob Clark who had recently moved away to Richmond, Virginia. He resembled the sculpture.

Spooky landmark. List’s subsequent FBI arrest at his accounting office made for scintillating news around the globe and electrified America’s Most Wanted ratings.

At the time, I remember my roommate coming home and asking, “Did you hear they caught John List?” She’d grown up in Westfield, where kids made the List property their No. 1 spooky dare long after the house mysteriously burned down in 1972.

A jury convicted John List on five counts of first-degree murder in 1990. Superior Court Judge William L’E. Wertheimer gave him life without parole.

List died in 2008, a one-of-a-kind killer who disposed of his family amid a dilemma that seems fairly prosaic in light of the last decade or so.

Westfield, where the average house costs $1,057,871 (Coldwell Banker)

Internet research turned up a number of statistics that surely would have provided List with some empathy if he faced his same problems post-2000.

According to Mortgage Bankers Association data cited by the FDIC, lenders foreclose on one in every 200 U.S. homes and one child in every classroom belongs to a family in jeopardy of losing a home because of difficulty meeting mortgage payments.

A 2005 Freddie Mac-Roper poll also flagged by the FDIC concluded that “more than 6 in 10 homeowners delinquent in their mortgage payments are not aware of services that mortgage lenders can offer to individuals having trouble with their mortgage.”

Hardly atypical. The poll also determined that “homeowners fail to contact their lender because they are embarrassed, don’t believe the lender can help, and/or believe it would cause them to lose their home more quickly.”

Any prospective John Lists of the new millennium surely could see that their problems were shared by countless homeowners around the U.S. and the world.

Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research found that during the subprime-mortgage-induced Great Recession, 8 million Americans lost their jobs and each year lenders foreclosed on 4 million homes.

Lack of faith. If List simply admitted to his family and creditors and the IRS that he was in crisis, he may have had to sell his house at a loss — but surely a solution that didn’t involve homicide and pseudonyms could have been hammered out.

List after his arrest

Perhaps if List knew back in 1971 that, 45 years in the future, an American who filed for bankruptcy protection four times would nonetheless be elected leader of the free world, he could have sucked it up, started over, and eventually made the List family great again.

That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR


P.S. If anyone knows what year Breeze Knoll was built, please advise.

6 thoughts on “John List: House-Poor Killer”

  1. I’ve done heaps of research on this property and can only seem to narrow it down to early 1900s. I’ll keep searching! Another great post and one of my all time favourite murder stories.

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